By ANDREW MCGINN
Speaking two years ago about their three decades as owners of Greene County EMS, the county’s quasi-public ambulance service, Dennis and Marcia Morlan talked of having seen it all.
“No one better understands how fragile life is,” Dennis Morlan explained, “than we do.”
A cancer survivor who’s now in his 70s, Morlan should be savoring retirement with his wife of more than 50 years — but six months after he gave the county board of supervisors notice that he intended to retire, telling them it’s difficult for him to lift just 40 pounds, he’s still making ambulance runs.
All signs point to the county taking over the service, but a succession plan seems no farther along than it did on June 30, when Morlan’s contract with the county technically expired.
The future of emergency medical services in the county dominated the talk last Thursday among candidates for county supervisor at a candidate forum sponsored by the Jefferson Rotary Club at Greene County Elementary School.
All candidates on the Nov. 6 ballot for county office appeared at the forum — with even the two candidates for county treasurer getting to enjoy a spirited exchange over whether to put the county’s tax sale online — but the supervisor races were the main event.
Four candidates are vying for two seats on the board, and nearly all identified EMS as a priority.
“Ambulance service, to me, is the top priority,” said Tom Contner, a 74-year-old Republican incumbent on the board. “If we can save one life, I don’t care what it costs.”
But who pays for it is a sticking point.
Contner said he would like for the county to partner with the city of Jefferson and the Greene County Medical Center to take over Greene County EMS from the Morlans.
“Jefferson uses the ambulance more than anyone else,” he said.
His Democratic opponent, 28-year-old Melissa Frederick, freely acknowledged it could take a tax levy to save such an important service.
“Taxes are there to do the things we can’t do alone,” she said.
And it seems Greene County may be unable to do EMS alone.
Thanks, in part, to the state’s privatized Medicaid system — a “fiasco,” Morlan has said, that has resulted in delayed and reduced payments — it will take about $200,000 a year, plus building costs, to keep the service afloat.
Currently, Greene County EMS receives just $50,000 of the county’s annual budget. The county also owns the ambulances.
But Morlan has said he can’t pay staff enough to stay, regardless of the fact that he and Marcia haven’t had a raise in 32 years.
One audience member at last Thursday’s forum asked pointedly who on the current board of supervisors is taking leadership of the issue — and what’s the timetable for it to be resolved?
Republican Dawn Rudolph, a supervisor running for re-election against Democrat Patti Naylor, said the board is already going beyond what it’s required to do for residents of the county.
“The board of supervisors are not required by law to provide EMS services,” Rudolph said. “We’ve decided to step in and step up to try to find a solution.”
She said a board subcommittee of John Muir and Peter Bardole is “working very diligently on a solution,” and conversations are ongoing with a private resident, the city of Jefferson and the medical center.
“A lot of things don’t happen overnight,” said Rudolph, who also wants the county’s municipalities to contribute to the cost of EMS.
Naylor urged haste.
“What is a life worth?” Naylor asked. “We need to take care of that situation quickly.”
Naylor also noted that the Morlans do so much, it could take as many as five employees to replace them.
Dennis Morlan is also the county’s emergency management director and the medical examiner investigator.
Frederick said people are unlikely to move to Greene County if there’s no one to provide life-saving emergency medical care.
It’s clear that residents have come to expect the service — Greene County EMS now responds to 900 ambulance calls a year, up from just 294 back in 1986.
“I don’t want my taxes raised,” Frederick said. “But you need that service, and we don’t have money growing on trees.”
In a way, they do.
MidAmerican Energy has erected 126 new wind turbines in Greene County over the past two years that are expected to generate $105 million in property taxes over their 40-year lifespan.
Frederick said she wants to explore using TIF money — property tax that has yet to be collected on the new wind turbines — while Contner pledged to watch the use of TIF.
Another topic of lengthy discussion was housing, and how to spur building in Greene County.
Frederick, who works in the lab at Louis Dreyfus LLC in Grand Junction, noted that many management-level employees at the ethanol plant don’t live in Greene County — which suggests a housing issue, she said.
She again suggested the use of TIF to remedy the problem.
Democrats and Republicans alike acknowledged there’s only two types of housing in Greene County: High-end and low-end.
Frederick said that people her age are too strapped with student loan debt to purchase a house in need of such extensive repairs.
Rudolph indicated the county has too many dilapidated homes.
“There are a lot of sad-looking properties,” Rudolph said. “That hinders people from moving to some of these communities.”
Rudolph followed up by saying it’s not the county’s role to develop housing, and that it’s also outside the scope of TIF.
Pointing to the low wages paid by a number of local employers, Contner asked, flatly, “Who’s going to buy the houses?”
On other issues, Contner brought up the need for a new county jail.
Greene County Sheriff Jack Williams has said the county’s current, eight-person jail can no longer keep pace with the rate of crime.
Contner said the county will have to figure out a way to pay for a new jail. He wasn’t sure how, but another bond issue isn’t likely — the recent school bond pushed county taxpayers to their limit.
Frederick and Naylor each touched on the issue of hog confinements.
Frederick, whose husband Bill farms, doesn’t want to limit young farmers, she said, “but at the same time we have to look at our air, water and soil quality.”
She would like to see Greene County join with other counties in petitioning the Legislature to update the master matrix, which is used by Iowa counties in the siting of hog confinements.
Naylor, who said Greene County needs to advocate at the state level when necessary, wants the county to join the call for a statewide moratorium on new hog confinements.
Rudolph acknowledged a need for the master matrix to be updated or reviewed by the state, but she also sees good in hog confinements.
“It’s a way for our young farmers to come back,” Rudolph said.
The race for county treasurer pits 25-year-old Republican Katlynn Gannon-Mechaelsen against 75-year-old Democrat Donna Lawson, one of the longest-serving treasurers in Greene County history and one of only two Democratic elected officials at the county courthouse. (Recorder Marcia Tasler, who’s running unopposed for re-election, is the other.)
After this current term, Lawson will tie fellow Democrat Charlie Cleveland for longevity in office.
Cleveland was first elected county treasurer in 1934 and then served until his retirement in 1966 — 31 years in office.
Lawson was first elected in 1986.
Mechaelsen said she wants to increase the office’s use of technology, with Lawson countering, “It’s not like this office is behind. We’re not behind.”
Lawson said the treasurer’s office is limited in what changes it can implement by Iowa Code and the state treasurer’s association.
But on one issue — following other counties by putting the delinquent tax sale online — Lawson insisted her way of doing it, in which bidders have to attend the annual sale in person, remains best for Greene County.
Mechaelsen said she wants to move the tax sale online.
Lawson said putting the sale online would open it up to out-of-state investors with little to no vested interest in Greene County.
Properties, she said after the forum, when asked to clarify her stance, could sit abandoned.
“I want to control who can come to my tax sale,” Lawson said.
Donna Lawson, incumbent
Education: Jefferson High School
Occupation: Greene County treasurer since January 1987
Key quote: On the people who visit her office: “They do not leave without having their questions answered.”
Katlynn Gannon-Mechaelsen, challenger
Education: Bachelor’s degrees in accounting and business administration, AIB College of Business
Occupation: Controller at an accounting firm in Des Moines
Key quote: On whether her age is an advantage or a disadvantage: “I give respect, and that’s why I get respect.”
SUPERVISOR DISTRICT 2
Education: Scranton High School
Occupation: Business owner, Rudy’s Service and Detail
Education: Bachelor’s degree in education,
Iowa State University
Occupation: Former teacher; now farms with husband George northeast of Churdan, where they’re moving his family farm to organic production
SUPERVISOR DISTRICT 3
Education: Rippey High School
Occupation: Retired in June after 24 years in sales at Rueter’s
Melissa (Bosshart) FrederickParty: Democratic
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology, University of Iowa
Occupation: Works in lab at Louis Dreyfus LLC,